The perplexing pronunciations of words with X's and Q's
Blame the Romans
Having trouble pronouncing the name of China's new leader, Xi Jinping? If you say "she jin ping," you'll be close enough.
Having trouble pronouncing the name of China's new leader, Xi Jinping? If you say "she jin ping," you'll be close enough. Wang Zhao-Pool/Getty Images

ith the ascension to power of Xi Jinping in China, there's at least one super-pressing question on everyone's mind: How on earth do you pronounce Xi Jinping

And while we're at it, what's up with all these languages that use letters like x and q for seemingly random sounds?

The answer to the second question involves Romans and IKEA furniture.

The Romans took the Greek alphabet and modified it to suit their language (Latin), and now many languages use the Latin alphabet in spite of it not being well made for them. Just look at your computer keyboard. The Latin alphabet is a handy kit of bits and parts that you can use to represent sounds, sort of like a box of boards and bolts to construct a piece of IKEA furniture. Many of the sounds that existed in Latin exist, more or less, in nearly all languages. But many languages have sounds that Latin did not have, and some languages don't have some sounds that Latin did have.

So when another language uses the Latin alphabet to represent its sounds, it's like using that box of stuff from IKEA to make something other than what those pictographic instructions tell you to make. You may discard some bits. You may add some bits that you got somewhere. You may bend or otherwise modify some bits. You may use some bits for more than one purpose. You may also take some bits that were designed for one thing and use them for something else. 

Enter x and q. Even in Latin they were oddballs, one standing for two sounds together, "ks," and the other only showing up with another letter and representing a sound that already had a letter. Because English has borrowed heavily from Latin, we use x and q just as Latin did (except we say x as "z" at the start of a word because we think we can't say "ks" there). But for a lot of languages in the world, x and q are really just extra junk. Little odd screws or blocks of wood. So they can get pressed into service to represent sounds Latin did not have. This is especially true in languages that have just recently been given Latin-based writing systems. 

Here are some sounds you'll see x and q used for in some languages.

Sounds x can stand for:

* Basque, Portuguese, Maltese: The "sh" sound.
* Vietnamese: The "s" sound. (Why not use s? They do; the sound x stands for has shifted to "s" since x started being used.)
* Pirahã: A glottal stop — like if you spelled heir as xeir, or button as buxn.
* Albanian: The "dz" sound. If you add an h to make it xh, as in Gonxhe Bojaxhiu (the name Mother Teresa was born with), it's similar to our "j."
* Oromo: An ejective "t" — basically, one said with strong emphasis.
* Haida: A velar fricative, like German's ach and Scottish's loch.
* Squamish: A uvular fricative — similar to the sound you make when clearing your throat.
* Somali: A sound like a heavy, deep "h" (a voiceless pharyngeal fricative, if you want the technical term).
* Mandarin Chinese: In the Pinyin transliteration, it stands for a sound between our "s" and our "sh," rather like the ch in German ich.
* Zulu and Xhosa: A lateral click: the sound some people make to call an animal or get a horse to move.

Sounds q can stand for:

* Inuktitut, Quechua, Aymara, Halkomelem: A voiceless uvular stop. This means instead of saying "k" where you usually do, press the back of your tongue against the very back of your mouth to say it.
* Somali: A voiced uvular stop — like the above, but instead of saying "k" far back in your mouth, say "g" far back. 
* Oromo: An ejective "k" — basically, one said with strong emphasis.
* Maltese: A glottal stop. See x in Pirahã above. It would be like writing qeir and buqn for heir and button.
* Albanian: A voiceless palatal stop. That's between "t" and "k," in the place where peanut butter gets stuck.
* Fijian: The "ng" sound in finger (not in wringer). Imagine writing fiqer.
* Mandarin Chinese: Like the Mandarin x with a "t" before it and a small puff of air after — similar to "ch" or the sound you make when you sneeze.
* Zulu, Xhosa: A click behind the ridge of your palate — the sound you probably make when imitating a knock on the door.

So, back to the first question. You now know that Xi is pronounced sort of like "she" but with the tongue slightly farther back. And the Jinping? In Pinyin spelling, j is like q without the puff of air — in other words, like our j but a little farther back. So if you say "she jin ping" you'll be close enough. And be glad you don't have to read Maltese, Albanian, or Xhosa on a regular basis.

James Harbeck is a professional word taster and sentence sommelier (an editor trained in linguistics). He is the author of the blog Sesquiotica and the book Songs of Love and Grammar.



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